Many people often ask, what is the hardest part of the game to referee? There are two areas that stand out in my mind – The contact area and the scrum. For now I will outline why the scrum is so difficult, together with suggestions I believe would help make it a less of a lottery to referee and a bit more pleasing on the eye that watching scrum after scrum collapsing.
The scrum has always been an important part of the game and quite rightly so, and I, for one, hope this will still be the same in years to come. But one thing is certain; we as officials, players and coaches have a duty to this wonderful game of ours to make sure that the scrum can still be a competitive and important part of the game whilst making it as safe as possible for all concerned. What makes it such a difficult area to referee is that at any given scrum there are a multitude of offences that should be penalized, therefore we as referees tend to make sure we deal with the most obvious and clear of them- ie the one that has ‘material affect’. Both teams will want to win the hit and get the upper hand on every scrum during the match, which is why we have so many free kicks for early engagements. Also we see a lot of collapses where the team that has lost the hit will often want the scrum re-set so they can try and win the hit next time. This is why it is very important for the referee to make sure that he does not let one side engage early and gain an unfair advantage.
Another reason that can make it so difficult is that all six front row forwards can be of different shape and height, therefore making it very difficult for us to referee, as a short prop will want a small gap and a taller prop a bigger gap before they engage. Then when getting the distance correct and the engage sequence right, you have the binding of both props to deal with, and, after all that, make sure they scrummage legally after the ball has been put in by the scrum half, which, yes you’re right, should be down the middle of the tunnel.
Now watching the binding and actions of the props on the side of the scrum you’re standing as a referee is reasonably straight forward as long as you know what your looking for, but the problem often happens on the other side of the scrum where you cant see. At the elite end of the game we can have the ARs or touch-judges assist us, but when you don’t have neutral touch judges then your on your own and it becomes even more difficult!
A scrum that turns more than 90 degrees must be re-set and the side that was not in possession of the ball when it wheeled will put the ball in at the next scrum. Yes, you got it, common sense will tell you now that a side will willfully wheel the scrum in order to take advantage of this law. Wheeling the scrum is not illegal but it has to be wheeled correctly by one side of the scrum pushing and the other side just holding its position and not pulling back. The scrum then will gradually wheel which is fine and will give the side that has the ball time to play it. So in other words if they don’t manage to get the ball away then they deserve to lose possession of it. But the problem being here is that a side sometimes will illegally wheel the scrum by the front row pulling it round or the back five running it round quickly. This is not only illegal but dangerous and should be penalized. Now, as you can see, there is a lot there for one man on his own to watch, so now you are aware, just from the few basic things I have covered here, why refereeing the scrum is so difficult! I have not even covered the what other illegalities the front row can get up to in order to gain an advantage or to prevent a stronger and better prop in legally winning the battle in the front row either!
There are no straight forward answers to why some scrum in some matches are just a total mess and take up so much playing time, but if we as referees keep on working hard to improve our knowledge of the scrum and use zero tolerance in dealing with negative play and sin-bin players who don’t listen just as then the game will be better for it. If the players take responsibility themselves and play within the laws of the game and some coaches encourage positive play rather than negative play at scrum time, then the scrum will not only improve as a contest, but as a spectacle also, and then it can retain its rightful place as an integral and important part of the game. We all have a responsibility to do this and its about time we all started doing so for the good of this wonderful game rugby football union.
I shall discuss the contact area next week, another referee’s den of iniquity!